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In the provincial town of Udon Thani, in Northern Thailand, in the middle of a brain-meltingly hot day, my partner and I find a terrace and sit down to have a beer. It is the beginning of a trip exploring the less touristic face of Thailand. That means moving through parts of the country that are less relatable to us, coming from the Western world. I am Romanian and I live in The Netherlands. In Europe, I tell everyone I’m Eastern. But coming so far east, the differences that make me Eastern in the Western world become less relevant. My East becomes West, too, in Thailand. A matter of perspective.
On the terrace, two middle-aged men are sitting together. They are grinning in excitement, bent over a newly bought silver-coloured radio. It is too hot outside, even for the locals. The streets around us are dusty and completely empty. We get our beer, while the men turn their little radio on, push the volume up, and smile as a song fills the air. In an instant, in that burning midday air, I freeze. It is a song I haven’t heard in 20 years. A song they clearly don’t understand a word of, but that opens up a time-travel tunnel for me right there, in the middle of that dusty town, beer in my hand. It sucks me in and brings me far back in time to my first break-up, when I was 16.
The song is “Still Loving You”, the Scorpions song I had discovered only recently that summer when he broke up with me. Its lyrics described my reality and the things I wanted to tell this boy that left me. I spent the days in the aftermath of our separation, listening to it on repeat. It dug deep into my pain, the masochistic act of loving that, giving me the illusion that the period of time between when we were still together and the ever-expanding time of not being together anymore was not becoming larger with each passing day.
The most important thing about that boyfriend? He was my first. He broke up with me, unceremoniously, when he was accepted to university. He was to leave, and I was still in high school. He had a new life starting and I became his past. I made a tape for him with this song, in an attempt to make him change his mind. The song talks of winning back the love lost. “Is there really no chance, to start once again?” it goes, echoing a question I didn’t know how to voice otherwise. When I sent him that tape through a friend, I meant those words. I felt brave sending it. I felt hopeful.
It didn’t work.
Now, 20 years later, the pain of that break-up has long faded. I never think about him. I don’t know where he is or who he has become. But this is not about him anyway. It’s not the recalling of him that makes me feel this way, but the encounter with the 16-year-old me, with how I was and felt. My life has changed so much since then. So many new layers grew on top of my 16-year-old self, that thinking of that time and putting those memories in words is just storytelling, not something I usually vividly feel. Connecting to that past now, in Thailand, while being in this world so far removed from Europe and even further from the life I had as a teen, feels surreal. That summer 20 years ago has no substance and no connection to this now, yet it feels so real.
Nostalgia can be triggered by a song. But it’s the unexpectedness of such an encounter what makes the experience intense. It is one thing to play a song that reminds you of something. And another thing to find yourself in the midst of tunes that you didn’t even realize are deeply rooted into the fabric of your past. An unexpected encounter with a song can bring you back to a specific moment, or might revive an entire period, with its details and flavour. There is this deep sense of identity that comes with it. Your emotional memory becomes vivid and alive. And there’s no choice in it. You don’t get to choose the songs that have this power over you. You only realize they have it once you feel that power.
In university I had a friend. His name was Robi. Robi believed that by associating songs with moments and with people, we ruin them. Whether we want it or not, we link tunes with our experiences. To Robi, that meant we could never listen to those songs for what they are. To him, those songs were lost. I agreed with Robi at the time. But now, years later, it seems to me those songs make the soundtrack of our lives.
By “losing” these songs, we then tell the stories of our lives through them. Through those tunes, we can access times and versions of us that we otherwise lost touch with. You plunge into an immersive sense of recalling. It’s not only what happened that one remembers then, but how things were and how they felt. They facilitate access to our emotional sense. Those time-tune bonds are so intimate, so deeply personal, that inviting someone else to share into those memories seems futile. They’re not you. And the songs absorbed your version of those times, your memories, and feelings.
The soundtrack can only be yours.
I was born in 1984 in what was, at the time, communist Romania. I don’t remember much of the music we listened to back then. There were no songs on television. And we didn’t even have a record player. I remember some of the communist songs we learned as kids but have no real emotional memories attached to them. I know my parents loved Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Queen, and Uriah Heep. Some of their songs make them nostalgic for their youth. Despite the regime, that music was part of their lives and of their fantasy about the Western world. They accessed this music through the black market, listening to it in private or at home parties. It wasn’t rare, but it wasn’t in the open either.
I have no memories of them listening to this music.
What links me to that time is a Romanian song. It reminds me of the bond I have with my dad. We have an old analogue tape. The song is called “And If There Would Be.” Playing it, I can hear small me singing it along with him, his voice recognizable, mine the squeaky voice I used to have.
The fall of the communist regime changed everything. Some of the first cassettes we had were brought by my uncle, who could finally return to Romania from the US. Rod Steward’s “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It” brings me back to the days of his return and to the grey slushy winter that came after. The song was on one of those tapes he had brought with him.
In those years, Western music became widely accessible. It was everywhere. It happened gradually, but fast. The concept of copyright did not exist, so little shops selling tapes popped up everywhere. They were selling copies of original albums or mixes and top hits, with covers printed in pale colours or black and white, on regular paper. Those ubiquitous Western summer hits and chart toppers were blaring from everywhere. The shops were full of them. Our houses too.
I grew up in those times of transition and those hits were a big part of the cultural shift. That music and MTV made the soundtrack of that transition. We longed to be that, feeling partly inadequate, with our clothes and grey buildings and our legacy. But we were ready to put all that behind us. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to be, but we were eager, tentatively naive, buying new things, enchanted by the new, and the large offer of goods that overflowed into our markets. The previous scarcity meant that everything we didn’t have before was exciting. And there was a lot we didn’t have. Those post-communist wild capitalism years held lots of promises and hope. And the music was a constant reminder of those hopes and promises. Most of us didn’t understand the lyrics. But that didn’t matter.
Some time ago I discovered The Nostalgia Machine, this website that can show what songs were popular each year. I scrolled through the 90s but listening to the songs didn’t do much for me. I remembered, but I didn’t feel. And then it struck me: something happened in those years, something that did have a powerful impact on me. In 1997 I discovered Metallica.
I never wanted to learn English. It seemed an effort of no consequence to my life. But I started learning English because I loved Metallica. A schoolmate gave me a pirated copy of Metallica’s Black Album.
That changed my life.
Never mind that my vocabulary suddenly included words like “death” and “coffin.” I loved the music so much, I wanted to make sense of it. I’d look up the words. The songs – with my rudimentary understanding of English – tapped into my imagination. I’d lay my head on the speaker, volume up to maximum, and let the music go through me.
The more I listened to Metallica and the more I learned the English language, the more meaning and emotions I discovered in those lyrics. That music made me. Looking back, the fact that I learned English opened the world to me and set the terms of my current life – as it is right now. My work, my studies, the travels, my long-time partner and most of my English-speaking friends – it all started with me and a dictionary, listening to Metallica in my room.
The mainstream music hits of those years didn’t mean much to me. Or so I thought, until recently. I was watching a documentary film when I heard “All That She Wants”, the Ace of Base song. Just like that song in Udon Thani, I hadn’t heard it in a very long time. In 1992, this song was literally everywhere. It blared from cars. It played in the streets. We listened to it whether we wanted to or not. Hearing it again in that film, almost thirty years later, it projected me back in time, unable to move, with the entire post-revolution decade rolling in front of my eyes. It all came back to me in a feeling, a sense of that past. The song absorbed everything I had around me at the time: my parents in their 30s starting their own business and building a new life; my first bag of M&Ms; the return of my uncle from the US after many years; kids playing in the spaces between the grey flats, humming along to the song in broken English. The song contains my past, me growing up, and the fragility of that newly opened world, with all its promise.
The documentary film I was watching opened this gate without meaning to. It was not a film about those times, but it briefly featured footage of an Eastern European family from that period, at a home party, dancing to that song. It was not my family, but to me it looked exactly like we all were, like coming out of a completely different era, with our grey communist aura and our vulnerability for buying stuff we thought was special, feeling slightly awkward and inadequate, dancing clumsily but happily to that song.
Many of the songs that bring us back in time, are not so much about our musical taste as they are accidents. They are about our contexts. Their deep emotional connection just happened, unintendedly. And unintendedly we come across them again, opening an accessing tunnel, precious and so tended.
Thinking back to those times, those lyrics and the aesthetics of those Western videos were so mismatched with our realities, and the fabric of a post-communist Eastern European country, trying to find its way. But it was unavoidable – pop music flooded in and stayed. Having those songs was Western culture taking over. Romanian imitations of those tunes and aesthetics soon appeared. It was a done deal. But what this meant to us was in fact a promise: that the future has arrived, and we’ll catch up. Things will change and many of the things that were not possible for us, now they will be. That sense came back to me while listening to the Ace of Base song, with an overwhelming sense of compassion in recalling the mismatch between us as we were and that music. That mismatch is the essence of that period, and something that stayed, dividing my generation from the generation of my grandparents.
Thinking of this reminds me of this one time, when grandma and I were sitting on the edge of her bed together. The blinds were half closed. The room had this sleepy air, with clothes and boxes of medicine scattered around. Surrounding her there were all sorts of photos of me. Many of them: me in various important moments of my life, in the decade since I had left Romania for The Netherlands, and built a new life, thousands of kilometres away. The radio was playing in the background. Grandma was dressed in pyjamas. I was ready to go out but decided to sit with her just a little bit longer. I felt it was perhaps one of the last times her and I would sit together.
Grandma brought me up. With her love, I became a young adult looking towards the West, someone that would eventually build a life she never got to witness first-hand, working in The Netherlands and travelling to Thailand, while she stayed in Romania, seeing me only when I returned for visits. She went along with all the changes that came after the revolution with ease, but she remained from another time, accepting but never truly grasping the Western fascination of my generation.
She was now 93, and sometimes she would mistake me for her sister, who had passed away long ago. However, in that moment, while we were sitting together, her mind was present, perfectly clear. She covered my hand with hers, looked me lovingly in the eyes and told me she believed we’d soon part ways. I knew that to be true, but I said nothing. I covered her hand with my other hand. In this shared moment while we were silent the only words came from the radio: “Baby if you give it to me, I’ll give it to you. I know what you want, you know I got it.” Grandma didn’t speak a word of English. But I just knew: next time I hear Mariah Carey asking Busta Rhymes to give it to her, I’ll travel back in time to this moment, and think of grandma.